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Child of a Mad God--A Tale of the Coven by R. A. Salvatore (The Coven 01) Book

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Child of a Mad God--A Tale of the Coven by R. A. Salvatore (The Coven 01) Read Book Online And Download

Overview: From R. A. Salvatore, the legendary creator of Drizzt Do'Urden, comes the start of abrand new epic journey.

When Aoelyn loses her parents, she is left to fend for herself among a tribe of vicious barbarians. Bound by rigid traditions, she dreams of escaping to the world beyond her mountain home.

The only hopefor achieving the kind of freedom she searches for is to learn how to wield the mysterious power used by the tribe's coven known as the Song of Usgar. Thankfully, Aoelyn may be the strongest witch to have ever lived, but magic comes at price. Not only has her abilities caught the eye of the brutish warlord that leads the tribe, but the demon of the mountain hunts all who wield the Coven's power, and Aoelyn's talent has made her a beacon in the night.

Child of a Mad God--A Tale of the Coven by R. A. Salvatore (The Coven 01) Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
Child of a Mad God--A Tale of the Coven by R. A. Salvatore (The Coven 01) Book

Child of a Mad God--A Tale of the Coven by R. A. Salvatore (The Coven 01) Book Read Online Chapter One


(The last day of the ninth month, Parvespers, God’s’Year 839)

The long arms of the strong and lanky boatman reached far ahead, slowly and silently dipping the paddle through the glassy surface of the giant mountain lake. He had never been formally trained, but still, the clever frontiersman moved the paddle so gracefully and smoothly, barely disturbing the water, and thus, not disturbing the huge and ferocious monsters that lived in the deep waters of Loch Beag.

Talmadge wore his hair long and beard thick and both showed a deep mix of red and dark brown. He kept his hair pulled back, sometimes tied and sometimes loose, but always with a thin braid pulled aside and hanging from beside his left ear and over his left shoulder. “Something to chew on,” he often said, and often did, using the braid as a constant reminder to pay attention to every detail, to watch for every sign and potential threat. Talmadge had lost track of his own age, but he knew that he had passed his twentieth year. That simple fact proved to any who knew this dangerous land that he still had much to learn, for though he had spent the entirety of his adult life and even much of his midteen years on his own out here in the western wilds, beyond even the Wilderlands, and far, far from the borders of the civilized kingdom known as Honce-the-Bear, Talmadge was still green compared with the other trappers and traders, still of the age where it was expected that he would meet a terrific and horrific ending. The gatherings of the frontiersmen were full of such stories.

“Low branches,” complained his companion, a wily and grizzled old wood-cat named Seconk, but known more commonly as Badger, because of his fondness for brawling and his penchant for leaving the other guy broken and bleeding in the dirt. Short, barrel-chested, and spindly-armed, it was often whispered, and teased, that Badger had a bit of the powrie dwarf blood running through him. Badger took those taunts as a compliment, though, for the bloody-capped powries were legendary for their toughness.

“Then duck,” Talmadge replied. “Need I really tell you that?”

“I paid yourself well for the passage,” the indignant Badger answered.

“If you’d not, I wouldn’t have taken you.”

“Bah, young idiot, but your mouth’ll get you killed soon enough.”

Talmadge glanced over his shoulder to note Badger staring out at the wide lake, then aimed the canoe in closer and leaned way back as they glided under a very low strand of hanging moss.

The distracted man behind him got a mouthful, and spat a mouthful back out. “Bah, too close, longlegs!”

“Then duck,” Talmadge repeated, and he didn’t keep a chuckle out of his voice.

“You’re too damned close to shore.”

“I’m not close enough,” Talmadge retorted. “You want us out there on the open water, in the morning fog?”

“We know the direction,” Badger argued.

“Getting lost isn’t my concern,” Talmadge assured the man.

Badger snorted. “That again?”

“Oh, there be monsters.”

“Bah! No fish’s eating Badger, but Badger’s eating fish!”

“Might that we should have cut you your own canoe, that you could run farther out,” Talmadge said slyly.

“I been on lakes more days than yourself’s been alive!”

“Not this lake,” Talmadge replied without hesitation, and in a more reverential and somber tone. “Not a lake as deep and as cold, and as filled with dark shadows. Don’t doubt that one of Beag’s hungry beasts would find us were we floating deeper.”

“Badger eats the fish!”

“Who said anything about fish?” Talmadge asked, turning about so the old grump could see the gravity in his expression. Indeed, that honest expression seemed to steal the bluster from Badger.

“We are staying near to shore, so keep low and keep alert and try not to let a branch catch you and flip you off the back,” Talmadge went on. “I’m not turning around for you, and your furs would catch me a finer price at Fasach Crann than you’ll be getting at Car Seileach.”

“Strange words, eh?” Badger remarked. “Car Seileach!”

“Short Willows, then, if it makes you feel more at home,” Talmadge replied sourly. This gruff older man was not going to do well among the tribes of Loch Beag, he knew. Here, the names of places were more tied to the land, more descriptive and informative. Simple and pragmatic, like the people, with habits and routines designed to accommodate the ways of the lake, the mountains, the valleys, and the creatures that inhabited them.

There was a beauty in that simplicity, Talmadge had come to appreciate, a kind of commonsense harmony and simplicity to their existence. Unlike in Honce-the-Bear, out here in the wilds, the land itself was more honored, more respected, and more dangerous than the castles of the barons and the kings, and so the tribes existed on the edge of utter ruin, where a winter storm could make seven tribes into six, or fewer. Or the lake monsters, or a bear, or a mountain cat, or a goblin (which they called the sidhe, and which were quite a bit bigger here than back in the civilized world) could take the most vulnerable child, or the most skilled warrior, and so quickly. And, of course, there were the warrior men of the mountain, the Usgar deamhain, always there, above them, looking down.

The villagers along the shores of Loch Beag did not have the luxury of complicating life. Death always hovered nearby, an ill, but constant, companion.

With gentle ease and practiced movements, Talmadge navigated around a tumble of rocks. At one point the long canoe, hollowed from a giant cactus, glided in water so shallow that Talmadge could scrape the end of his short paddle on the rocks glimmering below in the morning sun.

“A better price, you’re saying?” Badger asked slyly. “Why’re you stopping short, then? Another ten pieces of silver for yourself to take me all the way to this Crann place.”

“They would kill you,” Talmadge said matter-of-factly.

“They don’t kill Talmadge, do they?”

“It took me many visits and introductions from Seileach tribesmen,” Talmadge explained. “A stranger does not simply walk into one of the villages unknown and unannounced. Car Seileach is the entry point for all of the seven tribes about the lake, the village most amenable to folk from beyond the mountain plateau. This is where you will make your acquaintances, and if you prove as lovable as Talmadge, you might work your way about the shoreline to the other settlements, in time.”

“Seven tribes? Been told there were eight? What’s yourself hiding from old Badger?”

Talmadge settled the paddle across his lap and turned to regard his companion. He put on a grin for Badger, a mocking grin.

“Keeping all the good markets for Talmadge, eh?” Badger asked.

Talmadge laughed and directed the other man’s gaze up to the huge mountain anchoring the southeastern corner of the lake. “Oh, there’s an eighth tribe,” Talmadge explained. “More nomads than villagers, wandering the great mountain’s high ways. I can point you to them, but you’ll go alone. And you’ll not come back. No one comes back.”

The ominous ring of his warning hung in the air for a bit, until Badger harrumphed and spat back, “Bah, but they’re all savages, aren’t they? And ugly, too!”

With a chuckle, Talmadge went back to his rowing, not interested in correcting the stubborn old fur trader. Talmadge thought that he was quite the clever young man those years ago when he somehow managed to escape the rosie plague and discovered that he could survive in the Wilderlands and even west of that remote region with his wits and intelligence and the few skills his father had taught to him. Now, still a young man, but so very much more worldly than his years, the greatest truths Talmadge had come to know involved his own limitations. Talmadge had survived and often thrived because he accepted that many of the things he believed he already knew he didn’t really know at all.

Savages? From someone who had grown up in a kingdom torn by war, with dueling kings and fighting abbots, with fields of dead men piled atop each other, “savages” was not the word Talmadge would use to describe the folk of Loch Beag.

He couldn’t deny Badger’s other claim, however, for the people of Loch Beag were indeed quite ugly by the standards of the eastern men. They wrapped the heads of their infants tightly to reshape their skulls, and to truly shocking effect. Some skulls were simply elongated, some shorter but with a thicker, almost mushroomlike hump, and some bizarrely formed into a double-hump appearance that was indeed quite off-putting. The few folk back in the Wilderlands who had come this way wouldn’t even call the lakemen human, often explaining their weird appearance as the result of mating with goblins, or powrie dwarves, or that they were, instead, some demonic perversion of humankind.

But Talmadge knew better. These were indeed humans, quite civilized and quite sophisticated, and he loved this time of the year, autumn, because in the autumn each year, he could come to Loch Beag and be among the tribes.

He snickered again as he considered Badger’s reactions, for the eighth tribe the man had spoken of were not ugly at all, and did not reshape their skulls with wraps or anything else. To the lakemen the eighth tribe were deamhain—demon gods—and from all that Talmadge had heard and seen, it was a description, a reputation, well earned in spilled blood.

Talmadge sincerely hoped he never saw one of those deamhain ever again, nor ever again witnessed the aftermath of one of their devastating raids on the more gentle folk of the lakeshore.

“Getting close?” Badger asked sometime later, the western corner of the southern shore of the lake in view, although with many miles yet to go.

“Tonight or on the morn,” Talmadge replied. He eased his paddle up again and glanced out to the lake, spotting the distant sails of the small fishing boats, far to the west of his position.

Probably from Fasach Crann, he thought, for they were coming out right under the shadow of the great mountain, Fireach Speuer.

Talmadge smiled. Fasach Crann was his favorite settlement, and to his surprise, his initial revulsion at the elongated skulls of the villagers there had worn away to the point where he often found, with a proper tease of the hair, the look striking and quite appealing.

He thought back to five years before, to when he was more boy than man, innocent to the world and safe in his family bed. He recalled his mother and father, and his six siblings—of late, he found that he could hardly even remember their unblemished faces anymore.

Still, Fasach Crann reminded him of that town on the western edge of Honce-the-Bear. This one village on the mountain lake felt a little bit like home to Talmadge—home before the plague had swept through the land. Home before he had watched his parents and siblings bloat and die horribly, covered in red sores, something he wished he could hardly remember.

He asked himself for the thousandth time, “Why me?”

He winced with the weight, the guilt of surviving. He dipped his paddle in the water, pushing the canoe ahead, suddenly eager to be rid of Badger and any other reminders of that faraway world and its complications.

*   *   *

The sun was sinking low behind them when Talmadge guided the canoe about the hanging moss and drooping branches of short and wide willow trees that leaned over the water thirstily.

The young trader knew then that he wouldn’t make Car Seileach that day, unless he traveled long after sunset, and far too many dangerous creatures lived in or about Loch Beag for him to like that proposition. So, he began to scan the bank for a good place to set camp.

On one clear stretch of still water, he put up his paddle and began to turn to tell Badger of his decision, but he stopped halfway around, caught by a most curious sight. A line of orange needles wove its way toward him from the deeper water, and if that was not strange enough, several other such lines were moving all about, and even as he stared at them, many more appeared.

It only took Talmadge a few heartbeats to sort it out, recalling the clo’dearche, the huge orange lizards common about the lake.

Huge and aggressive.

And now they were coming in from the depths in a swarm. He saw a dozen, two dozen!

Talmadge splashed his paddle into the water left of the canoe and gave a tremendous pull, slightly turning the boat for the shore.

“Put in your paddle on the right and hold it flat there!” he cried to Badger.

“Eh, what?”

“Turn! Turn!” Talmadge yelled.

“What in the name o’ King Danube?”

“Just turn, you fool!” Talmadge retorted, though in truth, he had the craft almost facing the shoreline then, so he corrected, “Just row! To the trees—they don’t climb!”


“The lizards!”

Badger gasped and Talmadge knew he had finally caught on.

“Are we to outrun ’em?” the old veteran asked.

“Just row!”

The canoe bounced as Talmadge pulled and he grimaced and moved his hand near his short sword, thinking that one of the lizards had bumped up against the craft. But no, he realized, it was Badger, up and running the length of the boat, then leaping ahead to the shallows. If it wasn’t bad enough that the man had deserted the boat and their supplies, Badger landed in the water, spun about and shoved back against the moving canoe, nearly capsizing it, and knocking Talmadge off-balance.

“I can outrun yourself!” Badger said, splashing to the shore and laughing wildly.

Talmadge grabbed both edges of the craft, trying to steady it. He had to get up and out, he realized, but even as he started to rise, the boat lurched again, mightily, and rushed in for the shallows, propelled by a powerful lizard. The canoe leaned heavily to the right and turned sideways. It scraped the bottom, hit a stone, and lurched, and Talmadge tumbled out sidelong.

He was smart enough to roll with the throw, and savvy enough to grab a rather large stone as he came around, splashing to his knees and hopping to his feet just as the lizard got its feet onto the sand and stones of the shallows, tossing the canoe about like a child’s toy with a simple shake of its large head, and pressing forward at Talmadge.

The man pegged it, right on the skull, with the stone.

The clo’dearche hissed and opened wide its maw to display lines of needlelike teeth. Twice as long tip to tail as Talmadge was tall, and four hundred pounds of claws and scales and murderous jaws, it reared up onto its hind legs, fiery orange in the slanting late-afternoon sun rays.

Talmadge fell back and drew the short sword from his belt, certain that he was doomed. He glanced at the trees to see Badger already in the lowest branches, and knew that he could not get there, and understood, too, that the man wasn’t coming back to help.

The clo’dearche hissed savagely, and a fan of skin, like small and furious wings, opened wide about its neck, and vibrated fiercely, the slapping of skin against scale adding to the sound.

And warning Talmadge.

He dived aside as the beast spat, a giant wad of ugly, sticky, dangerous goo. He knew more than one Seileach tribesman whose eye had been burned out by the acidic spittle.

Splashing and stumbling, Talmadge got to dry ground, but there his heart sank as more of the giant lizards exited the water left and right, with the hungry beast’s snapping maw so near behind him!

His mind whirled—these were not pack hunters, but solitary beasts except in the spring during their mating frenzies. Why were so many about? And how?

Talmadge took two steps before he had to swing about and slash across with his short sword to keep the lizard at bay. He nicked one foreleg, but got hit himself, by the other, scratching in at his sword arm as it passed.

How easily the lizard’s claw sliced through his thick leather sleeve and gashed his flesh! He knew that he was lucky that his arm hadn’t been sheared off at the elbow. Instead of countering with a backhanded slash, Talmadge flipped the blade into his left hand and tucked his wounded right elbow in close as he retreated.

He glanced left and right, seeing huge orange lizards rushing by. With a flick of his head, he sent his thin braid up to his mouth, where he clamped onto it, chewing, trying to sort this all out. For a moment, he feared that he was being flanked, but no, these other beasts were fleeing, scrambling, scrabbling, heads and tails whipping side to side.

But not the one before him. Up on two legs still, that one came on with murderous intent, claws twitching, tongue flicking. Talmadge jabbed his sword repeatedly, but had to give ground.

“Be a good lad, then,” Badger called from up in the nearby willow tree. “Might that yourself’ll be dead soon enough, so offer some words on how I’m best to speak with them Seileach folk, eh?”

“Help me, you fool!”

“Oh, I’m not thinking that’d be in my plans,” Badger replied with a snort.

The clo’dearche lurched forward, maw snapping, then fell forward, nearly overwhelming Talmadge as it went to all fours once more, sending the man rolling away.

“Badger!” he called.

“Aye,” came the answer. “Right here, watching, and thinking that my own self’ll do fine since I’ll have twice the haul of furs and skins.”

Talmadge growled and fended the charging lizard with a series of slashes and stabs. Back up on its hind legs went the beast, and those collar wings began to chatter, the creature gathering spittle.

Talmadge set his legs wide, taking a count of his heartbeats by chomping on his braid, measuring the lizard’s delay. Right as the orange lizard spat, the man whirled about to the side, again only narrowly avoiding the putrid goo.

“I knew a lass who could spit like that!” Badger called. “Or swallow it, too, ha ha!”

*   *   *

Old Badger actually felt bad for the younger man down there, and it occurred to him that watching this ugly critter eating his guide wouldn’t be much fun.

So be it.

This was the truth of the frontier, the wilds beyond even the Wilderlands—beyond in both senses of the word: farther from the civilized kingdoms and wilder still! Death was a common companion to the folk of these parts, particularly the traders, who lived as hermits for most of the year. Every spring, Badger would go to the gathering known as the Matinee to discover that men and women he had known over the years were not to be seen again, ever.

With a resigned sigh, Badger rested back against the thick trunk of the tree and watched the spectacle play out below him, the lizard trying to eat Talmadge, and the poor, doomed man trying just to stay away, and with no apparent hope of actually beating the thing.

But none of the orange ugly things were coming for Badger, after all, or seemed interested in climbing any trees, and that was all that truly mattered.

The old frontiersman looked about at the trees, at the short willows, and figured he could find his way to Car Seileach easily enough. And now, of course, he’d have far more goods to barter. Even if he had to give all of Talmadge’s bounty to the ugly-headed tribe, at least he’d be the lead contact thereafter, and any of the other traders hoping to deal with the lake tribes would have to look to him for expensive guidance!

Of course, he had to stay alive.

“My own self’ll be taking your haunt as my own, I expect,” he called down.

He winced as Talmadge dived aside, whacking the lizard with his sword, to no apparent effect. Talmadge almost got away, but the creature bit him on the boot and held fast as he sprawled, and Badger grimaced again and looked to the lake, not wanting to watch the ugly lizard feast.

And he looked, too, to the cactus canoe, nodding with relief to see that it remained secure on the sand and rocks in the shallows. Some of the goods had fallen out when the lizard had tossed the boat aside, but they were still right there, up against the craft.

He thought that perhaps he should slip out to the boat and float away while the lizard ate.

His pondering fell aside, however, as another commotion stirred just off the shore. At first Badger thought it the crest of a wave, but no, these were fish, small fish in tight schools, breaking the surface with a series of leaps in a silvery display. And they were throwing themselves right from the lake, onto the beach.

Badger crinkled his face, not understanding, and stroked his long and scraggly gray beard, casting his gaze out farther onto the lake.

And his eyes widened and his jaw drooped open.

A huge shadow passed beneath the surface, not far out. The water rippled and Badger noted a series of sinewy, snakelike humps gliding through the clear lake. He couldn’t make out the exact shape of the thing, except that it was enormous, and dark—black like death. He never even saw the monster’s head, just that giant, serpentine body, but that was enough for him to understand that the thing could swallow him whole.

Badger understood then why the creatures of this small bay were rushing from the water, even formidable creatures, like dozens of these huge clo’dearche lizards, fleeing for their lives.

The shadow passed, gliding away under the deep waters of Loch Beag, and it took Badger a long time to remember to breathe.

Suddenly, he wasn’t so sure that he wanted to claim dead Talmadge’s items.

He looked down to see the man fighting bravely, and futilely. Talmadge limped as he moved about, his foot torn and bleeding. He had his sword back in his right hand, but he grimaced every time he waved it to block or to drive the stalking lizard back.

“Hurry up and be done with it,” the grizzled old fighter in the tree whispered.

“I’ll spit on your rot,” he heard the battling Talmadge grumble, and Badger could only shrug and reply, “As you wish,” under his breath.

*   *   *

The standing lizard swayed, snakelike, as if trying to mesmerize him.

Talmadge wasn’t falling for that! He didn’t let his short sword dip at all, keeping its fine blade ready to stab against any advance.

“Come on, come on,” he whispered under his breath. He glanced to the side, to the tree with Badger, and growled, for the man clearly wasn’t coming down to his aid.

And there was no way he was getting up a tree, for the clo’dearche was devastatingly quick. He still couldn’t understand why the other lizards had run past, and were, he hoped, still running, for they were nowhere Talmadge could see.

A sparkle down at the lake caught his attention briefly, and he knew it to be a wave of silver fish, leaping from the water, as they would to avoid larger predator fish. But he heard the splashing by the bank and realized that many had thrown themselves there and now flopped helplessly in the shallow water!

Before he could make sense of the suicidal flight, though, the lizard before him reared higher, and out came the winglike neck flaps, hissing, gathering another blast of spittle.

Talmadge didn’t angle himself to dive aside, and he didn’t roll away. He chewed his braid, watching the lizard’s yellow eyes—eyes that would roll to white right before the creature spat.

Talmadge counted again, silently, ready to spring.

Even as the lizard’s eyes rolled back, Talmadge leaped ahead. He ignored the pain in his arm, and stabbed with all his strength, with all his weight behind the blow, right into the middle of the clo’dearche’s chest, right between its waving forelegs.

He didn’t even know if the thing had a heart, or if his stab had a chance of felling the monstrous lizard. But he struck, with all his strength, a last, desperate try. Good fortune was with him, for he knew that had the beast not snapped forward at the same instant to launch its spittle, he never would have been able to pierce its hide as wounded as he was. The sputum flew over Talmadge’s ducking head.

Once the tip of the short sword got through the outer armor, Talmadge drove it home, plunging the fine blade in deeply, pressing it, pushing it, right to the hilt as he crashed into the standing lizard, driving it over.

Talmadge pitched ahead, the lizard falling over backward—not straight back, for the long and powerful tail countervailed, but off to the right, the two coming down heavily, the lizard’s forelegs snapping in tight, claws cutting into the man’s clothes and flesh.

Talmadge threw his left arm under the thrashing beast’s jaw, fighting to keep that terrible maw up too high to bite his face off!

And they thrashed and they rolled, and the heavy thing crushed down upon him. And Talmadge screamed out for Badger, certain that he was about to die, trying to cover, unable to defend.

It took him a long while to realize that the clo’dearche was dead as it lay atop him, and took him longer still to roll the thing aside and climb out from under it.

He came up to his knees, only half hearing Badger’s calls of “huzzah!” as the man at last slid down from the tree.

Talmadge was too busy inventorying his many scratches and punctures to take note.

“Ah, but you killed it good!” Badger said with a wheezing laugh.

Talmadge struggled to his feet, shaking, trying not to look at the man so that he wouldn’t reveal his outrage, and his continuing wariness.

“Something big swum by,” Badger informed him, walking over. “Big and dark, and chased them uglies from the water.”

Talmadge nodded, still trying to sort it out. Was it possible that the fabled beast of Loch Beag had come so near? The mere thought of it had Talmadge rocking and unsteady, and explained the clo’dearche exodus and the suicidal flights of the silver fish.

“The blood’s leaving your face, ha!” Badger taunted. “You killed the damned lizard to death and now you’re blanching?”

“The beast of Loch Beag,” Talmadge explained, his voice low, speaking slowly. “The lakemen sail hard to shore, any shore, to be away from it. It eats them. It eats their boats. It is a demon monster as sure as is the dactyl. How many lizards ran by us? Scores?”

“Seen plenty,” Badger admitted.

“And if all of them had turned to fight the monster instead of fleeing, they’d all be dead now. And if their flight hadn’t warned us, we’d be in the belly of the monster by now, bitten to pieces.”

The older man shifted uncomfortably.

“I knew you’d be beating it,” Badger said with a snicker, clearly nervous and trying to change the subject.

“You wanted my skins,” Talmadge casually replied.

“Wasn’t about to fight that thing!”

“You could have thrown me a rope.”

“Well,” Badger said with a shrug, still a few strides away. “We’re all to die, eh? And profit’s profit!”

“People do not survive out here alone,” Talmadge said, again with a level of complete composure. “There are too many things wanting to eat you, or rob you for their wares. Or sacrifice you to some god you’ve never even heard of. That you would care more for my wares than for my life marks the end of our arrangement and any pretense of friendship.”

“Friendship?” Badger replied with that wheezing laugh. “I paid yourself to take me, nothing more!”

“Well, that arrangement, too, is at its end,” Talmadge said, and he turned and started for the lake. “Take your wares and find your own way.”

When he faced away, Talmadge brought his left arm in front of him and jerked his elbow slightly, dropping a wide cuff of treated, reinforced leather down over his hand. He sheathed his sword on his left hip, too, pointedly so, that Badger would take note. “I’ll spit on your rot,” Talmadge whispered again, under his breath.

Predictably, Badger closed the gap fast, deftly drawing his long sword, and he stabbed it for Talmadge’s back.

But the younger man had anticipated just that, and he swung about, left arm leading, the heavy leather covering his hand catching the side of the blade and slapping the strike aside. And his right hand moved with speed and practice, a single, simple attack routine he had practiced every day since he had first learned the art of fighting.

To draw and to stab. One movement, fluid and fast.

He saw old Badger’s surprised expression, shocked even, that he had been so easily goaded by this young man.

Badger wore that disbelieving look even as Talmadge stepped into the opening and slid the short sword into his chest, slicing his lung, cutting his heart in half.

“We’re all to die, eh?” Talmadge said, his lips only an inch from Badger’s face.

The man could only wheeze in reply, and Talmadge shoved him backward, let him slide off the blade, dead before he hit the ground.

The battered Talmadge rolled his head about and flexed his shoulders, stretching away the pain. He glanced around, figuring that the monster, or whatever it had been, was gone by then, and so the other clo’dearche would likely soon return.

Talmadge wanted no part of that.

He looked to the canoe, to the dead lizard and the dead trader, and noted that Badger did indeed have a length of rope looped at the side of his pack.

Talmadge shook his head, disgusted, and muttered, “So be it.”

He took what he could from the man, and now had a finer sword hanging on his left hip, his short sword on his right.

And he put Badger’s rope to use, as well, tying the man by the ankles and hoisting him up over a low branch. He struggled to get him fully off the ground, low enough for the voracious clo’dearche to reach him, but high enough to keep them busy for a while.

He thought to do the same with the dead lizard, but he knew he hadn’t the time, or likely even the strength to hoist the thing.

He gave a last look at the dead man, and took a moment to fulfill his vow and spit on the corpse. Talmadge went to the lake, loaded the canoe—and took a few flopping fish as well as they floundered about the lakeshore, including one that was as long as his forearm—then dragged the boat from the shallows and started away, his eyes always to the deeper waters in search of dark things that swam below.

He had barely moved from the spot when he heard the first returning lizard, its neck flaps slapping. It probably thought Badger was still alive as he swayed on lake winds. He heard the spit, then more gruesome sounds, the chewing and the tearing.

Talmadge could only sigh and shrug.

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